Americans had been fascinated by vehicles prior to the era of World Wars and they brought new fascinations back from the war with them. In this, the second part of the History of American Cars, we’ll take a look at the vehicles post-World War II and how people made them theirs.
Willies for Life
One of the most iconic vehicles that came from the roads of World War II: the Willy’s MB, also known as the Jeep. This 4×4 vehicle took whatever the war had and pushed right back, and GIs loved them. It took only 11 days to manufacturers to bid to the US Army, 45 days to create a working prototype, and 75 days to create the first 70 test vehicles. Two vehicles competed for the job (American Bantam Car Company’s Blitz Buggy and Willys-Overland MA / MB jeep, with Ford coming in later on, too), but Bantam lacked production ability and both Ford and Willys-Overland produced their two 4×4 war machines.
Military Expert R. Lee Ermey says Jeeps got their name for the Popeye character, Eugene the Jeep, for the agility and ability of the small vehicle. Soldiers were so taken with these small, nimble vehicles that could “solve seemingly impossible problems” that they started calling them jeep, even though jeeps prior to then were heavier duty vehicles. No matter how it got its name, when it drove up the steps of the US Capitol building in 1941, it was a Jeep.
When GIs came home, so too did the Jeep. Willy’s produced the first civilian Jeep, called the CJ. Eventually, the brand was bought by Chrysler, which still produces Jeeps to this day (including the current 75th Anniversary Edition models to celebrate this very birth).
The Return of Racing
Racing had already become popular and, due to safety reasons, was taken from public roads to private tracks. However, that didn’t make it safe for the drivers. The 40s, 50s, and 60s was an era of booming racing, higher and higher horsepower engines, and, sadly, few safety standards.
While car racing was rather on hold during the war, people were already planning for its revival as the war came to a close. NASCAR, SCCA, the NHRA, and other organizations were all ready for the return of America’s automotive past times. Carroll Shelby and his infamous Cobra are still revered in the car racing community, becoming one of the best cars in the SCCA. His cars would later help dominate the muscle car era, too.
In the 1950s, Rally resurged in Europe with long distance races being more than 1,000 miles long with some going up to 5,000 miles or more. Some of that came back to the Americas, spawning a new romanticism for long travel and an era of road trips. These kinds of races still endure today as time-speed-distance (TSD) rallies without high-speeds, stage rallies with high-speeds through remote areas, and rallycross modern spin.
What soldiers had done before the draft, they returned to doing after the war. Hot Rodding was popular from the 30s to 50s since there were plenty of small, abandoned airstrips across the nation. It started on the dry lakebeds outside Los Angeles in the 30s and spread like wildfire across the nation.
Many of those returning soldiers also got training to fix mechanical gear in the military, making older engines a breeze to work on, upgrade, or swap out entirely. Popular models to hot rod were (and still are) old Ford Model As, Model Bs, and Model Ts from the late 20s to early 30s. Creating high-horsepower engines in small cars was a passion for these handy, mechanically inclined individuals.
Hot Rodding engines became such a big thing that it eventually grabbed the eye of the manufacturers and let to a new kind of car culture.
Muscle cars were the manufacturers’ answer to hot rodded engines. These rear-wheel drive, ‘family’ vehicles had ridiculously powerful engines in them and high-performance was the key. High-output V8s were the standard fare for muscle cars and getting their horsepower to the brink put the Detroit manufacturers into an advertising boxing match.
MOPAR, Cadillac, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Ford, and more all competed for top spot in the muscle car world. Vehicles such as the Chevrolet Camaro and Chevelle, Ford Mustang, Pontiac GTO, Plymouth Road Runner and Barracuda, Buick GSX, and Dodge Challenger or Charger, were some of the many other great muscle cars from the late 50s to 1974.
The Ford Mustang started in this era, too, originally being marketed as a stylish vehicle for women. It soon became the thing of muscle car dreams. Even Carroll Shelby helped with this vehicle, with the Shelby Mustang Cobra being a car that is sought by many and owned by few.
Starting in October 1973, there was a fuel crisis as the OPEC nations (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) issued an oil embargo due to political and military actions in the Sinai Peninsula by Israel. The US, as its ally, was part of the embargo that rose prices to a record high and caused a shortage nationwide. Gas rations were even implemented during this time.
The gas-hogging muscle car was doomed and the automotive industry had to start thinking small and light. Vehicles that got 15 miles per gallon were the thing of the past and imported Japanese cars offered better gas mileage and were cheaper, too.
The Toyota Corolla, Subaru DL, Honda Accord and Civic, and even Datsun (later known as Nissan) were popular vehicles of this time. American automakers responded with the Chevrolet Nova, Ford Pinto, and the AMC Gremlin. Full-size vehicles still remained after the decline of V8s, such as the megalithic Cadillac Fleetwood, Oldsmobile Cutlass, and Lincoln Continental. But these were luxury sedans and those who could afford them could also afford the gas.
By the end of the 1970s, the small car reigned supreme. Automobiles were about to get a spice of technology, but that’s for another time.
To test out some of the modern relatives of the eras discussed in this History of Cars series, please stop by your local AutoNation store today!